Friday, September 22, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Friday, September 22, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Family Sues Cox Media Station|For Its Unbelievably Bad Taste

NASHVILLE (CN) - A Cox Media station promoted news reports on its website with a photo of a young man with Down syndrome, altering it to show him holding a sign saying "Retarded News," his family claims in court.

What's more, the Cox station in Tampa, Fla., WHPT-FM, admitted what it did in a letter to a friend of the family who complained about it, according to the federal complaint.

Adam Holland and his parents Bernard and Pamela Holland sued Cox Media Group dba WHPT-FM.

They also sued Russell LaLevee, and Dave Brown dba Gigahertz Inc. aka Sign Generator, claiming they altered and used the photo on their own websites, also with "retarded" slogans.

All the defendants used altered photos of Adam on their websites without authorization, with defamatory and offensive captions, the family says in the complaint.

Adam Holland, then 17, attended an art class at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center in Nashville in July 2004, where an instructor took a picture of him holding up a drawing he had made, which is included in the complaint.

The color photo shows a smiling Adam holding a sheet of paper with two sticklike figures on it, and the words "Go Titans One."

The next page of the complaint shows a nearly identical color photo, altered to eliminate the stick figures and with the sign saying, in bold capital letters, "Retarded News."

The Hollands say they discovered the altered photo in 2012.

They say Cox's Tampa radio station had altered the photo and used it on its website as a logo for funny news, which it called "The Cowhead Show."

"On or about July 18, 2012, Adam's parents received an email from a friend, Alease Robertson, in which she attached the following website address for a program broadcast by one of Cox Media Group's stations, WHPT-FM in Tampa, Fla. which it calls 'The Cowhead Show,'" the complaint states. "On this website, WHPT-FM displayed the same photographic image taken of Adam in July of 2004 at the Kennedy Center. The defendant had cropped and altered this original image of Adam, substituting for his original artwork a depiction of Adam holding a poster containing the words: 'Retarded News.'"

Cox Media Group owns and operates 19 TV stations, 87 radio stations, eight daily newspapers, and many other publications and digital services. Its station WHPT-FM Tampa, known as 102.5 The Bone, broadcasts The Cowhead Show, including a segment called "Retarded News," according to the complaint.

"On July 22, 2012, plaintiff Pamela Holland received an email from a friend, Dave Davis, attaching a copy of an email that had been posted on the Facebook page for the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign," the complaint states. "One of the campaign's supporters, Erin Hinz, had received an email from Michael Sharkey, the Program Director for Cox Media Group station WHPT-FM in Tampa, Fla., the entity responsible for the broadcast of the 'The Cowhead Show' segment known as 'Retarded News.' In this email, shown below, Mr. Sharkey took responsibility on behalf of WHPT-FM for its unauthorized use of the photograph, and offered the following explanation and motivation for posting the altered photograph of Ms. Holland's son, Adam:


"'My name is Michael Sharkey, I am the Program Director of WHPT-FM in Tampa, Fla. and Cowhead's boss. I received your email from our corporate office and wanted you to be aware of the action steps we have taken.

"'The segment "Retarded News" is designed to highlight odd stories that are seemingly always in the news. Stories such as botched bank robberies and failed crimes. These stories are NOT about disabled individuals. However, in our investigation, we noted the picture that he was using did denote a person with Down syndrome. We have removed that picture from our page and we are removing any reference to handicapped or disabled individuals.

"'I apologize for any grief this might have caused. Thank you for your well thought out email, insight into Down syndrome and bringing this to our attention.

"'Best, Michael Sharkey.'" (Email addresses of Pam Holland and her friend deleted.)

The Hollands claim two other websites altered their son's photo and used it next to derogatory comments.

Dave Brown's Oswego, N. Y.-based Sign Generator, which charges customers to download images from its website, posted an altered picture of Adam holding a poster saying, "I Love Making Custom Signs," under the heading "Retarded Handicap Generator," according to the complaint.

The Hollands say they also discovered a website that used their son's picture under the caption, "Ben the retarded kid from down the street."

"In December of 2012, plaintiffs learned through their investigation that the originator of the aforementioned website and images was Russell LaLevee, who resides in Spring Park, Minnesota," the complaint states.

"Plaintiffs have since learned that Mr. LaLevee maintains a Flickr page entitled 'Wasted In The Keys.' In December of 2012, the defendant LaLevee posted on this Flickr website the following defamatory comment about Adam Holland in which he boasts of having received over 21,350 views over a period of 25 months. He describes the posting as 'just a stupid photo of the sick retarded kid that lives down my street that my dogs hate.'"

The Hollands seek compensatory and punitive damages for invasion of privacy, misappropriation of likeness, defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and violations of the Tennessee Personal Rights Protection Act, and want to stop the publication and distribution of the photos.

They are represented by Larry Crain with Crain, Schuette & Associates, of Brentwood, Tenn.

Categories / Uncategorized

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.